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Stephen Schochet

 

 

 

How We Got Movie Stars

by Stephen Schochet

 

Early movies had no stories, no movie stars and no sound. A popular production in the 1890's was two girls getting undressed by a lake. Right before their last garments came off, a train came by to block your view. In the next scene they were swimming. The three minute film was a hit throughout the country. One old farmer became a big fan and kept paying to see it repeatedly. One day the theater manager came down and said," Say old timer. Every day you sit and watch the same thing over and over." "Well sonny, one of these days I'm hoping the train will be late!"

Many of the early film performers were quite content to stay anonymous, reasoning that the new flickers were a novelty that would damage their reputation on the legitimate stage. They were often expected to work all day long. Their duties included hammering nails, painting the set, picking up trash, and lifting heavy equipment. There were no trailers, perks, glamour or big mansions. A casting director might meet a newspaper boy on the street and hire him as his lead actor for five dollars a day. Ladies of the evening were often given jobs simply because they provided their own wardrobes. More often the studios would hire teen age girls who needed no make-up which in the pre-Max Factor days would melt under the hot lights. Not knowing their real identities, the movie going public would give their favorites appropriate nicknames such as "the waif" or "the cowboy". The growing curiosity surrounding the identities of the actors leads to the birth of movie magazines such as Photoplay in 1909. The new publication conducted a poll asking what kinds of screen stories would people would like to see. Was it romance? Crime? The overwhelming answer was the fans were far more interested in learning about the mysterious figures in the dark. But fearing that their players would demand huge salaries the producers still refused to reveal who they were.

One of the most prominent movie theater owners was a former clothing store manager from Oshkosh, Wisconsin named Carl Laemmle, the eventual founder of Universal Studios. By 1909 he was sick of buying movies from Thomas Edison or European providers. He concluded it was easier and cheaper to produce make his own movies. Laemmle would listen each night as his patrons would leave his theater, many would excitedly discuss the actors on the screen. If he was going to pay his own pictures he would sell them by creating a star.

He wasted no time in hiring a twenty-year-old actress named Florence Lawrence known to the public as the Biograph Girl, named after the studio she worked for. One tale had the four-foot ten Laemmle conducting a midnight raid of Biograph's offices, where he carried his new charge away over his shoulder. He revealed her name and 250 dollar a week salary to the new fan magazines, and then arranged for her to mysteriously disappear. "My competitors will stop at nothing to ruin me. They've kidnapped poor Florence, perhaps even killed her!" he told the press.

For the next few weeks Americans followed the saga in the newspapers, there were several false reports of foul play. One account stated Florence was killed by a streetcar. Then, as pre-arranged by Carl Laemmle, Florence "miraculously" resurfaced in St. Louis were she was mobbed, her clothes ripped off by fans (some of them hired). And so Florence Lawrence gained a huge following. Movies with her name on the marquee started selling like hot cakes.

Laemmle quickly became discouraged by the movie stars he created and the high salary demands that predictably followed. Universal eventually become a horror factory where actors playing the Mummy or the Invisible man could easily be replaced if they asked for too much money. The mogul often tried to exit show business. One time another Florence, vaudeville producer Florence Zigfield was desperately strapped for cash and sent a messenger to Universal to offer Carl Laemmle some wardrobe dresses for five thousand dollars. Not interested. Undeterred, Zigfield asked for a personal meeting. "Mr. Laemmle, how much to buy your studio?" Eagerly the tiny mogul named a price that was in the millions. "I see, well let me talk it over with my lawyers. You should hear from me in a few weeks." Zigfield got up to leave then paused at the door. "Oh by the way I have some dresses left over from an earlier show. I'm trying to get rid of them for ten thousand dollars." "Yes of course," said Laemmle. Zigfield left the lot with his money, but the studio purchase was never consummated.

As for Lawrence, glory was fleeting. A few years after her public breakout, she was working on a film when a fire broke out on the set. The young woman courageously risked her life to save one of her fellow actors and the incident left her temporarily paralyzed. Unable to work she painfully watched the rise of new silent film sirens such as Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson. By the time she recovered no one would hire her. She ended up in obscurity and tragically committed suicide years later at the age of 52. But during her appearance in Saint Louis in 1910, Florence Lawrence, the world's first movie star, drew a bigger crowd than the President who came to town a week earlier.

 

 

Stephen Schochet is the author of the upcoming book

Hollywood Stories: Short Entertaining Anecdotes About the Stars and Legends of the Movies. He is also the author of two acclaimed audiobooks

Tales of Hollywood: Hear the Origins of Hollywood!

and

Fascinating Walt Disney: Hear How Walt Disney's Dreams Came True!

These entertaining gift items are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, 1-800-431-1579 or wherever books are sold.

View samples at www.hollywoodstories.com

 

 

 

 

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